Sunday, 15 January 2023

A Living Revolution: Reviewed in HaGalil

Published in April 2022 in HaGalil, the following essay is by Professor Siegbert Wolf - one of Germany's leading scholars of Gustav Landauer and Martin Buber (among others) and someone I always wanted to meet back in my PhD days. Our paths never crossed, but I was pleased to see that the German Living Revolution edition had made its way onto his desk, and immensely grateful that he'd take the time to read the thing, let alone write an essay on it. (The following is my translation of Wolf's essay. All translation errors my own etc...)

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A Living Revolution: Anarchism in the Kibbutz Movement

Siegbert Wolf

Alongside the anarchist collectives in Spain from 1936 to 1939, the kibbutz movement is one of the most important and long-lasting social experiments, and at the same time one of the 20th century’s “most important practical experiences of self-government” (p. 190). The social and religious philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1965) emphasised the cooperative settlement movement in Eretz Israel as “new territory of social organisation”[1] with regard to communitarian community projects in Europe and North America. He praised the kibbutzim as the most remarkable socio-utopian venture undertaken to date, combining production and consumption, industry, agriculture and crafts. Buber’s scepticism about social hierarchies and state centralism underpinned his continued sympathy for a free, egalitarian restructuring of society: a cooperative, federalist association in self-organised, grassroots-democratic and decentralised social and economic communities.

With his book, first published in 2009 and now also available in German, political scientist James Horrox, who conducted numerous interviews and discussions with kibbutz members, scholars and activists in Israel, Europe and North America, presents a detailed and readable study of the more than 140-year history of the kibbutz movement and its anarchist influences. While the importance of the kibbutzim in “the process of founding a nation and in the reorientation of an entire population” (p. 10) is well known, this is less true of the fact that the kibbutz movement, as an egalitarian and communitarian community, is “the ideological offspring of the anarchist tradition” (p. 11). It is this connection between the cooperative-federative commune movement and anarchist social utopia that Horrox’s study explores.

At the end of the 19th century, as a result of anti-Semitic pogroms and economically desperate conditions Jews in Eastern Europe in particular were looking for a new combination of social-revolutionary radicalism with regard to their Jewish identity, and found this, partly, in (non-statist) cultural Zionism, and in the cooperative settlement movement in Palestine. As a result, a growing number of voices favored a socialist-Zionist perspective, i.e., focused on building their own society in which Jews were no longer at the mercy of the benevolence of a Christian majority population. Above all, Jewish anarchists emphasised the need for a communitarian society through libertarian cooperative kibbutzim in Eretz Israel. Marxist ideas, on the other hand, which would subsequently become more prominent in the 1920s, “were unable to exert any formative influence on the reality of life in the kibbutz” (p. 124).

Horrox elaborates in detail on the ideological foundations of the self-organising kibbutzim, which were based, at least initially, on collective ownership of land and means of production, joint work, mutual aid, social equality, local autonomy and direct democracy. Here he recalls Peter Kropotkin’s (1842-1921) anarcho-communist conception of the “industrial village” and “mutual aid” directed against industrial capitalism, as well as the principle of “to each according to their needs”. Gustav Landauer's communitarian anarchism, which called for the creation of the socialist society of the future in the ‘here and now’ by practicing new social arrangements in the relationship between people and nature, was widely received. Although Landauer was not himself an adherent of political Zionism, he followed the Jewish settlement movement with sympathetic interest, as documented in his 1919 correspondence with Nahum Goldmann (1895-1982), who later became President of the World Jewish Congress and the World Zionist Organization (pp. 204-208). Besides Martin Buber, through whom Landauer’s anarchism reached socialist Zionist circles, other role models for this libertarian socialist communitarianism were the Hebrew writer Aharon David Gordon (1856-1922), who in his writings described a “love of physical work and nature” (p. 42) and was influenced by the agrarian anarchism of Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), and the socialist-Zionist politician Chaim Arlosoroff (1899-1933).

The main part of Horrox’s study is devoted to the history of the kibbutzim, their beginnings and foundations from the late 19th century, and their social context. Of the six Aliyot [waves of Jewish immigration] to Eretz Israel, mainly from Eastern Europe, the actual founding of socialist kibbutzim is closely linked to the second (1904-1914) and third Aliyot (1919-1923): “The lifestyle they practiced was based on political and material equality, freedom, democracy, and collective ownership of property. The main concern of the community was the abolition of all hierarchy and rank. […] The decision-making structure was based solely on direct democracy.” (p. 34)

The founders of these kibbutzim were guided by “clearly defined substantive objectives” and “principal convictions” (p. 57) of revolutionizing all areas of life, largely based on the history, theory and (communitarian) practice of anarchism: “This new anarchist society should be created around a participatory economy and be free from any government and external administration.” (p. 58) Added to this was the idea of joining the collective settlements together into a federalised structure: “The movement worked throughout the 20th century on this federative basis via the principle of mutual aid among the kibbutzim, notwithstanding the complex and extensive processes of divisions and unifications [within and between federations] during this period.” (p. 121)

As part of the socialist communitarian movement, the kibbutzim saw themselves as ecological, self-governing, post-capitalist communities based on the freedom of the individual, socially just and free from domination, with grassroots democratic decision-making processes, collective ownership of property and means of production, egalitarian income, collective distribution of goods, communal kitchen and dining arrangements, equality between the sexes, collective and co-educational education and rejection of the traditional (nuclear) family, rotation of job roles, elimination of status differences between manual and mental labour, and guaranteeing the basic needs of all kibbutz members (food, housing, education and healthcare) were met by the collective.

“The Zionism of the early kibbutzniks had never envisioned a national renewal which could take the forms of the process of state-building” (p. 86). Eretz Israel offered “an opportunity to build an entirely new form of society,” not to bring about a nation-state with a capitalist economy. The focus on founding and defending Israel came later. Horrox uses the example of the anarcho-syndicalist Augustin Souchy (1892-1984), who met Gustav Landauer in Berlin before World War I and travelled to Israel several times after World War II, to illustrate that many non-Jewish anarchists also succumbed to the fascination of the cooperative collective movement. Souchy, who met Martin Buber in Jerusalem and visited numerous kibbutzim, wrote: “My deepest impression […] was the harmonious community life in the kibbutzim. The transformation of desert land into a garden with no prospect of material gain would hardly have been possible under these severe conditions on the basis of private property. But the spirit of community made it happen. What I saw in Israel was the best confirmation for me that my childhood ideal can be realised and that free socialism is not a utopia.”[2]

The history of the Jewish cooperative settlement movement can be divided into four periods. The first, social-utopian period from 1907 to 1935, in which libertarian socialist influences were widespread. The second phase, from 1936 to 1949, is seen as the “heyday” of the kibbutzim. In the years from 1950 to 1966, the cooperative movement lost importance as a result of the founding of the state in 1948 and increasing institutionalisation and party influence. From 1967 to the late 1980s, it went through a period of industrial transformation. At the same time, since the 1970s, among some in the intellectual circles of the kibbutz movement there has been an increased preoccupation “with ideological questions”, a “renewed turn to Buber and Landauer” (p. 88) and to anarchism: “Although it was, by that time, too late to turn back the clock, figures like Landauer again became an intellectual inspiration for many kibbutzniks. The kibbutz movement began to recognise the deep debt it owed to its anarchist predecessors” (p. 89).

The economic crisis in Israel in the 1980s also forced the kibbutzim to make economic adjustments, for example with increasing professionalisation in the areas of management and financial administration. The collectivism of the kibbutzim is still, to this day, suffering as a result. Horrox sees the reasons why the utopia envisaged by many in the kibbutz movement’s founding generation ultimately failed to materialise in the long term in the fact that the “dream of the early communards was systematically manipulated and instrumentalised by the emerging Zionist institutions of a state-in-waiting” (p. 127). The decline of the original libertarian impulses within the kibbutz movement after the founding of the state of Israel did not go unnoticed by Martin Buber either, but at the same time, he remained hopeful for their renewal and resurgence: “In the past, the kibbutz movement had an indirect impact on human coexistence in the city and in rural settlements, and at the same time had a tremendous direct impact on the hearts of young people in the diaspora. This second influence is less profound today, while the first has disappeared altogether. I am far from blaming the people of the kibbutz for this. I know very well the role of the politicisation of our life as well as the growing dependence on the world market etc. Nonetheless, the fact is that I used to feel the power of the actualising spirit and I don’t anymore. But do not think that I am in despair, because I am pinning my hopes on a new kind of dissatisfaction, on an inner change, on a renewal of the kibbutz movement […].”[3]

Although many kibbutzim, especially in the 1980s and 1990s, said goodbye to the “anti-market views of their founding generation” (p. 139), turned away from the idea of ​​socialism and, with the privatisation of the common means of production, oriented themselves more towards capitalism, this, according to Horrox, is by no means the end of this movement. Although the vast majority of today’s kibbutzim “are no longer as close to classic anarchism as they used to be” in terms of their structure and everyday processes, they often “still function in a manner distinct from both capitalist and state-socialist models” (p. 141f.).

In his outlook on the kibbutz movement in the 21st century, Horrox rightly emphasises that even if the “aspirations of the early kibbutz communards have long been integrated into the Zionist state structure”, the “country they helped shape” nevertheless continued to evolve, proving to be “a veritable micro-laboratory for radical social experiments” and thus for options that could open space for a “renewal of the anarchist tradition” (p. 186). How, the author concludes, can the “radical legacy of the country’s history provide answers to current social problems?” (Afterword, 2017, p. 201). His answer is: by “developing realistic alternatives that become a permanent status quo in a spirit of mutual aid, cooperation and self-government.” (ibid.).

James Horrox, Gelebte Revolution. Anarchismus in der Kibbuzbewegung. Übersetzung aus dem Englischen und Französischen (Nachwort von 2017) von Lou Marin. Heidelberg: Graswurzelrevolution, 2021.


[1] Martin Buber, Der heilige Weg. In: Martin Buber Werkausgabe, Bd. 11.1: Schriften zur politischen Philosophie und zur Sozialphilosophie. Hrsg. u. kommentiert von Stefano Franchini, eingeleitet von Francesco Ferrari. Gütersloh 2019, S. 125-156, hier: S. 152.
[2] Internationales Institut für Sozialgeschichte (IISG) Amsterdam, Augustin Souchy Papers, Nr. 53.
[3] Martin Buber an Jifrach Chaviv vom 22.12.1959. In: Ders., Briefwechsel aus sieben Jahrzehnten. 3 Bde. Hrsg. u. eingeleitet von Grete Schaeder. Heidelberg 1972-1975, hier: Bd. III, S. 495f.

Monday, 9 January 2023

A little Eden in this world: A Living Revolution review

The gift that keeps on giving keeps on giving. Since the publication of the German translation of A Living Revolution in 2021 there seems to have been renewed interest in this now-nearly-14-year-old book, largely, I assume, thanks to the efforts of its translator Lou Marin. No further comment from me, except that I'm going to post (pretty scratchy) translations of three of the mysteriously numerous reviews that have popped up over the last year. The first is by German academic Dr. Maurice Schuhmann, published in March 2022.

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A little Eden in this world

James Horrox reports on anarchism in the kibbutz movement

by Maurice Schuhmann

A few years before his death, the German anarcho-syndicalist Augustin Souchy published a euphoric pamphlet entitled Reise durch die Kibbuzim [Journey Through the Kibbutzim] (1984). In it, he enthusiastically describes the insights and experiences he had gained while traveling through various kibbutzim. His report ends on an emotional and problematic note as follows: “Almost 2000 years ago, the Jews brought Christianity to humanity, unfortunately transplanting the Garden of Eden to the afterlife. Today, the kibbutzim bring at least a little Eden back to this world.” Almost 40 years later, the German translation of the 2009 study A Living Revolution by British political scientist and author James Horrox has now been published.

Although the closeness between the kibbutz movement and anarchism has often been alluded to – especially in the more recent general surveys of anarchism (Peter Marshall, Demanding the Impossible) or in studies of modern anarchism (Uri Gordon, Hier und Jetzt[1]) – with the exception of the abovementioned writings by Souchy, Horrox’s study stands alone.

Starting from a few fundamental remarks on anarchism and Jewish socialism, namely the ideas of A. D. Gordon, an early kibbutznik and leader of the Hapoel Hatzair (Young Worker) movement, in the opening chapters Horrox focuses on the first three Aliyot (waves of Jewish migration to Palestine) in the period between 1882 and 1924. Over the course of the first Aliyah, kvutzot (agricultural collective settlements) were founded, while in the second wave, the kibbutzim developed as an independent form of settlement.

Among the protagonists of the second wave – who created, among other things, the first kibbutz, Degania, which still exists today – the influence of early socialist thinkers, Leo Tolstoy and the theory of Peter Kropotkin was particularly present. In the third – mediated not least by the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber – Gustav Landauer’s idea of ​​community gained a stronger foothold. Within the third wave, however, the influence of a Marxist-influenced socialism became stronger, and this spread in the mid-1920s. But Horrox also offers a brief look at the later years and developments that saw the anarchist impulse pushing back in the kibbutzim.

In the almost 15 years between the founding of Degania and the end of the third Aliyah, the kibbutzim functioned on the basis of a socialist way of life. Horrox outlines the foundations of this model, which can still be found in some of today’s kibbutzim, and subsequently brings up the question of a ‘new kibbutz movement’. In presenting how the kibbutz model works, he critically examines the ethos of labour, for example – albeit without problematising the gender-specific distribution of work that existed among the first generation of kibbutzniks – and addresses the pedagogical approaches.

Following on from this, and increasingly drawing on interviews, he sheds light on the relationship that the anarchist movement in Israel has with the kibbutz movement. In doing so, he is forced to conclude that “many of today’s Israeli anarchists no longer have much interest in the experiences of the early communards.”

Horrox’s well-founded presentation of the anarchist tradition within the kibbutz movement offers a very good introduction to the history and early development of this unique community movement, which, in contrast to the mostly short-lived early socialist commune projects of the followers of Cabet, Saint-Simon and Fourier, can look back on more than 100 years of history. Furthermore, Horrox fills a research gap in the otherwise rich literature on this movement by providing a foundation for the postulate of a closeness between anarchist thought and the early kibbutz movement, advocated by Noam Chomsky among others, which often appears in secondary literature.

Horrox’s study is supplemented by several appendices – including a reprint of Nahum Goldman’s correspondence with Gustav Landauer and Uri Gordon's preface to the first American edition.

James Horrox: Gelebte Revolution. Anarchismus in der Kibbuzbewegung. Verlag Graswurzelrevolution, 259 S., br., 24,80 €.


[1] The title under which the German translation of Gordon’s book Anarchy Alive! was published in 2010.

Thursday, 29 December 2022

Wednesday, 28 December 2022